In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire (2000) argued that "Education is suffering from narration sickness" (p. 71), that students were plagued by an education that intended to simply imprint the patterns of the dominant culture upon them rather than empowering them to take control of their own lives (Blackburn, 2000). Teachers, in Freire's view, were trying to narrate life to their students instead of allowing students to explore and learn through experience. As a cure for this "narration sickness," Freire offered a pedagogy of dialogue, centered upon the problems of the learner and focused upon issues that were directly applicable to the lives of his students (p. 71). Freire's ideas have since been adopted all across the world in a wide variety of educational contexts (Glass, 2001). However, despite wide recognition as one of the most important educators of the 20th century (Kohl, 1997; Roberts, 2007), Freire has not been embraced in the United States to the extent that he has in much of the developing world (Macedo, 2000). One of the major reasons for this is that Freire focused his writing on the context of the developing world, "in places that bear little resemblance to the advanced industrial countries of the West" (Giroux, 1979). Critics of Freire's ideas have argued that, while Freire's ideas may have been applicable in contexts like northern Brazil, where huge numbers of people lived in poverty and illiteracy, those ideas bear little relevancy in a liberated and affluent nation such as the United States.
Many other writers disagree with this assertion, claiming that the United States, perhaps now more than ever, needs to incorporate Freirean pedagogy into its educational system (A. M. A. Freire & Vittoria, 2007; Glass, 2001; Ronald & Roskelly, 2001; Shaull, 2000). In the Foreward to the 30th Anniversary Edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Shaull (2000) argues that modern Americans are oppressed by the power of technology, and only a critical education of the type Freire advocated will ensure that people are able to utilize technology to change their world rather than watching haplessly as technology changes it for them. Glass (2001) agreed that Freire remains relevant, stating, "A pedagogy of the oppressed is as needed today as when Freire first articulated it" (p. 15). Of course, that pedagogy cannot be applied exactly in the United States as it was in Brazil or Africa. Freire himself stressed that no ideas of significance can simply be picked up from one context and applied wholesale to another--rather, they must be reinterpreted or "reinvented" (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 92). One way that Freire's pedagogy has been and can continue to be reinvented for American society is the application of interdisciplinary and integrated thematic curriculum.
Before delving into the connections between Freirean pedagogy and interdisciplinary curriculum, it is important to get a sense of what both Freirean pedagogy and interdisciplinary instruction entail. Since very early in the history of education reform, researchers and theorists have explored the benefits of some form of interdisciplinary instruction (Applebee, Adler, & Flihan, 2007; Beane, 1997; Dewey, 1938; Kilpatrick, 1918), which is "a knowledge view and curriculum approach that consciously applies methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience" (Jacobs, 1989, p. 8). One of the central problems of traditional instructional methods is that they tend to make schools "splintered, over-departmentalized," and fail to help students form meaningful connections (Vars, 1991, p. 14). According to Palmer (1991), "Unless students are able to recognize the connections between and among various facts they learn in their separate courses, they will not have an understanding of what was, what is, and what may be coming" (p. 57).
Interdisciplinary instruction is designed to provide that connection by examining problems of significance from a wide variety of contexts without regard to the narrow confines of traditional academic disciplines (Palmer, 1991). This emphasis on connection, context, and significant problem solving occurs and reoccurs throughout Freire's work as well (Freire, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2011; Freire & Macedo, 1987), meaning that interdisciplinary educational approaches provide today's educators with the potential to apply F reirean pedagogies to 21st century American classrooms.
Freire asked, "how can one apply Lenin to the Latin American context without making an effort to have a critical, political, and historical comprehension of the moment in which Lenin wrote?" (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 133). The corollary to that question is, how can one apply Freire to a 21st century American context without making an effort to comprehend the moment in which he wrote? Understanding Freire's pedagogy requires an understanding of his personal history, of the context in which he lived and wrote, because for Freire, context is central to all learning (Freire & Macedo, 1987), and his educational and intellectual context began with his northern Brazilian childhood.
Freire's Background. Freire grew up in Recife, Brazil, one of the most impoverished parts of developing world (Shaull, 2000). Though his family was comfortably middle class during his early childhood, the economic impact of the Great Depression dropped the Freire household directly into poverty. With his father unemployed and the family struggling to survive, young Paulo fell behind in school because hunger impacted his ability to concentrate. This immersion in poverty and disenfranchisement kindled in Freire a lifetime dedication to helping those he considered...